Remembering Rajiv Gandhi: The politician with a difference
Rajiv Gandhi’s achievements as the prime minister bear testimony to his legacy as a top-class politician
One cheerful morning in 1983, I was sitting before Rajiv Gandhi. The place was the circuit house located at Gauriganj in his constituency Amethi. It was around 7am. “What would you like to have?” Rajiv asked me, even as he applied butter to his toast. It was an “official” interview doused in flavours of informality. If my questions were pointed, his answers were simple and crisp.
On the way back from Gauriganj to Allahabad, my photographer colleague and I kept animatedly talking about him. We agreed that a young and bright politician was emerging in the country. If he got time to mature, he would prove to be a good prime minister. The star of the Nehru-Gandhi family was on the ascendant on the horizon of Indian politics at that time. If you left aside a period of slightly less than two years, Indira Gandhi had been the country’s prime minister for close to one-and-a-half decades. She was at the nucleus of the nation’s politics and in such circumstances, thinking about anything else was impossible for her political heir.
There was enormous curiosity in our minds to know and understand Rajiv Gandhi since he wasn’t his mother’s first choice for politics. Sanjay Gandhi had become active in politics in the 1970s itself. He had a big role to play in the Congress’s policies but an air crash led to his untimely death. Rajiv was a pilot working with Indian Airlines those days. His family and he enjoyed a simple and non-ostentatious lifestyle like average, middle-class Indians. But changes in circumstances meant he had to plunge into the cesspool of politics.
Along with this, there was a world of a difference between the behaviour of Sanjay and Rajiv. This was the real reason for our inquisitiveness.
Who would have thought that a few months later, Indira Gandhi, too, would meet a tragic death and Rajiv would suddenly become the prime minister? Don’t you think Rajiv Gandhi’s life was replete with tragic surprises more than pleasant ones? An accident catapulted him into politics and another tragedy took him to the prime minister’s chair and at that time nobody had an inkling that the cruel cycle of death would approach him in this manner. I remember clearly.
On the night of 21 May 1991, when the news of his cruel assassination came, nobody at our newspaper’s office in Agra was willing to believe it.
A few days before that, he had visited the city of the Taj and newspaper reporters discovered another facet of Rajiv’s personality. After an election meeting at Ramlila Maidan, he had stepped down from the podium to interact with the audience. An intelligence alert said that there was danger to his life. A few officers from the Uttar Pradesh Police were collaborating with his bodyguards led by Pradeep Gupta who had arrived from New Delhi. During this time Rajiv saw that an elderly woman who was trying to reach out to him, was stopped by a cop. He got angry and behaved in a very stern manner with the sub-inspector from Uttar Pradesh Police. Politicos of that time did such things routinely. But he was Rajiv Gandhi. He expressed his regret to his associates that night. His associates said what’s done was done and that Rajiv should move on. But he didn’t agree. He called the sub-inspector to the dak bungalow the next morning and apologized to him. The gesture made the sub-inspector emotional. Later, with tears flowing in a choked voice, he told reporters: “I wish every politician was like him!”
Rajiv was certainly very different from others. Despite intelligence warnings, he was eager to meet the common people whom who he considered his own. That’s one reason he ended up losing his life.
This was a personal attribute of Rajiv Gandhi’s personality but as prime minister, he carried out a number of tasks that bear testimony to his legacy as a top-class politician. Peace in Punjab and the North-East and ushering in the telecom and computer revolutions are his gifts to the country. Politics didn’t come naturally to him. So he took time to realise that the profession was the last refuge of scoundrels. His advisers misled him into imposing restrictions on the press and advancing beyond what was necessary in Sri Lanka. Those he considered his own gave him greater grief than strangers. If he were a shrewd politician, he wouldn’t, perhaps, have been caught in the cesspool of Bofors, but then, few politicians have got away without a taint on them?
Politics is another name for a coal mine, from which nobody can emerge unblemished. Every politician in the world has had to endure some venom. Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t an exception to this. If he were alive, he would have been entering his 75th anniversary year, today. He had to make an untimely departure. At that juncture, after withstanding many tests by fire, he had turned into pure gold and the nation needed him.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin